Showing posts with label Parsifal. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Parsifal. Show all posts

Monday, July 09, 2018

Problems with Pélléas

It's always interesting to read bad reviews, even if one cringes while so doing. But those that have attended the new Pélléas et Mélisande at Glyndebourne have come with such a dose of vinegar that it makes one super-curious to see whether they're justified, and it's always hard to believe that they could be.

Oh dear.

Das Wunder der Heliane meets the ghost of Pélléas?
Photo: Glyndebourne Productions Ltd, by Richard Hubert Smith

Perhaps Stefan Herheim's concept would play better in central Europe or Scandinavia, where productions are often more heavily dramaturged [yes, I know, no such word] than is usually the case here, and where audiences have arguably grown to expect controversy on stage plus abstruse references laid on with the trowel. And perhaps the setting of Glyndebourne's Organ Room - recreated with useful additions such as concertina-folding organ pipes and sliding walls - would have played better if habitual Glyndebourne patrons had not seen umpteen other productions of other operas also set within Glyndebourne itself, to the point that this jumps aboard the most massive of local clichés.

It is nevertheless a valid starting point: the action takes place in a grand, dark, oppressive old house/castle and, as my companion for the evening remarked, how many of us have not wandered through such a place and wondered what secrets it is hiding in its past? (Or is Herheim trying to tell us something about the age-old secrets of Glyndebourne? I sincerely hope not.) Perhaps part of the idea is about the Christies staging dramatics in their organ room. But what is inexcusable is to have Debussy's final bars obscured by audience laughter as actors clad as present-day Glyndebourne punters wander onto the stage, looking around. No. Just no.

Everyone seems to be blinding each other. Yes, the text makes ample reference to blindness, but nothing in this text is literal: must it be spelled out to that degree? If there is a benefit to the storytelling, it's eluded me thus far. And Golaud, Pélléas and Yniold all frantically mime painting on empty easels. Yes, Debussy was a contemporary of the great Impressionist painters, but that doesn't make this appropriate, insightful or comprehensible, even if perhaps excusable.

What's with the Christ-like figure that appears in the middle of the organ, just as Arkel tells Mélisande she must issue in a new era...with a sheep draped over its shoulders? Sacramental imagery, says a Twitter contact. Yes, we get that (and Herheim changes Yniold's shepherd into a priest), even if we don't necessarily get its point - but the bottom line is that it looks completely ridiculous and everyone laughed, and you don't want that to happen in the middle of Pélléas.

Or maybe you do...and that would be worse, because it means you are not taking the work on its own terms or presenting your audience with something conceived in its true spirit, in which case why should we go? Moreover, having Golaud rape his own son/daughter Yniold is a major misjudgment in a scene that is upsetting enough as Debussy and Maeterlinck created it - and leaves Pélléas novices seriously confused ("But why does he do that?" "Well, actually, he doesn't...").

Nevertheless, there's a sprinkling of wonderful ideas too. Mélisande is portrayed (by the excellent Christina Gansch) as a complete pre-Raphaelite beauty, overwhelming in her seductive presence, and she seems to have healing powers; also, she recoils when Golaud faces her with his sword presented as a cross. There's always a mystery about her; no reason she shouldn't be at least partly supernatural. Golaud (a tour de force from Christopher Purves) is a violent psychopath, as destroyed by his own malady as any Otello. Pelléas is under-characterised, though mostly well sung by John Chest. The division of body and soul for Mélisande at the start of the final scene works nicely, as does having the ghost of Pélléas lurking around, waiting for her to join him – though I'm not sure why he has to run her through with a sword when she's about to snuff it in any case. Some of these images come over more as Das Wunder der Heliane than Pélléas, and I can't really think of two more different operas.

As you'll have gathered, a lot of visual ideas are crammed in here, layer upon layer upon layer. Yet Debussy's music is so subtle, so delicate, so hinted-at, that it's completely overpowered by the on-stage shenanigans. By the end one feels exhausted by all the "WTF now?" moments, and might be longing for the privilege of hearing a concert performance instead – preferably with Robin Ticciati conducting it every bit as beautifully, intelligently and ineffably as he does here.

In the past few years Ticciati has had to take some time off for a back operation, which has somewhat disrupted his tenure as Glyndebourne's music director. But in that time, he has been reinventing his whole approach to conducting (as he told me in an interview last year) - and now the results are becoming more and more interesting. Something in him has deepened and darkened and opened out. I'm getting the impression that we may have here a very significant musician indeed, someone who has further to go interpretatively than some of the supposedly glitzier, more superficially exciting podium presences. I hope I'm still around to see where he is in 25 years' time.

Nina Stemme as Kundry, with ex-equine friend
Photo: Ruth Walz

Concert performances, meanwhile, have a lot going for them. I spent yesterday afternoon and evening holed up with the webcast of Parsifal from the Bavarian State Opera, this being the first summer in a number of years that I'm not going physically to Munich. (Hallelujah, medals and science prizes galore, please, to whoever created the technology that makes webcasts possible and quality sound available on the computer.) What a musical treat: Kirill Petrenko on fire with spiritual joy in the pit, the orchestra playing the living daylights out of the piece, Nina Stemme the most astounding Kundry - and Kundry the most astounding Nina Stemme - that I've yet had the joy of hearing, Christian Gerhaher a dream of an Amfortas, Rene Pape channelling Gurnemanz in person, and Jonas Kaufmann tracing Parsifal's growth and strength incrementally, with That Voice. The production, by Pierre Audi, is strong, straightforward and clear, never confused or confusing. The Grail is meat in act I and music itself at the end of act 3: we are saved by art alone. Bravi. But the visual art is by the great Georg Baselitz and though many images are effective, at other times one just has to look the other way. A concert performance would solve that in one fell swoop. This probably sounds uncharacteristically philistine, so blame the heat if you like.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Parsifal: A Love Story?

Angela Denoke as Kundry & Simon O'Neill as Parsifal. Photos: Clive Barda

Yesterday I mentioned that the Royal Opera's new Parsifal, directed by Stephen Langridge, seemed rather a curate's egg as cooked by Heston Blumenthal. But the more one thinks about it, the deeper it goes. What follows contains spoilers aplenty, so if you don't want to know the results, look away now.

Langridge's concept is startling, thought-provoking and at times extremely disturbing. It is a very contemporary interpretation, some of which works, some of which doesn't, and some of which seems better after you've had 36+ hours to digest it.

First of all, take the giant cube that occupies the centre of the stage. The first impression is that this is infelicitous design - it resembles a set of Portaloos, or alternatively an outsized SAD lamp (goodness knows our knights need one). More to the point, the hammy gestured flashbacks enacted within it (see image below) are unnecessary distractions and add little of discernible value to the whole, while making it necessary for the real action to take place on the peripheries of the stage.

But wait. Our friend Pliable at Overgrown Path has pointed out that the cube has resonances from Islam. There's another image here... The set design, furthermore, places the holy spring at the back of the stage in a rectangular tub bearing no small resemblance to a mosque's howz for ritual purification.

So are these Grail Knights a kind of Wagnerian Al Qaida? As they send four initiates out into the world in woolly hats, armed with pistols, at the end of the Grail ceremony, it seems not entirely impossible. What's certain is that at the heart of this ceremony lies something dark and desperate. At its outset, in a ritual motion, the knights take knives and spear their own hands.

The ailing Amfortas, bound to the cult/temple/whatever-it-is by his father's demand, doesn't want to carry out the Grail ceremony and begs not to have to do it. The question, though, is always why? Isn't lifting the Holy Grail a beautiful thing to do? Not here - because the Grail is a young boy, and Amfortas has to slash his stomach. No wonder he doesn't want to do it. The boy then passes out and is carried in a classic pieta tableau around the knights, who reach out towards him. But when he comes round, he sits on a bench wrapped in a sheet, ignored and alone, apparently no longer of any significance. Parsifal alone rushes to sit beside him; a look passes between them. This also makes sense - for what inspires human compassion as much as a child abandoned, wounded and suffering? It's the discovery of compassion that transforms the 'Pure Fool'.

The question "why?" appears to be a powerful driving force. Why is Kundry going to such lengths to cure Amfortas when she was responsible for his initial downfall? Simple: she loves him. He loves her too, but his terrible wound has come between them. And at the end, Amfortas cured, Kundry redeemed, they walk off hand in hand, away from the cult/temple/whatever-it-is to live happily ever after. Parsifal has saved Amfortas so that he can live and love and be a whole man. Parsifal opens the Grail shrine to find that the Grail - who was there earlier, a bit older than he was in Act I - has disappeared. Parsifal follows suit, walking away and exiting at the back. Job done. True Grail revealed: it is human love.

At least, I think that is what's going on. It could perhaps use a little more clarification. I may have got it completely wrong, but it's been a process of elimination: if that isn't what's happening, then what is? Pass.

The single biggest problem with the notion - which is beautiful in itself - is that while it can, with some effort, be extrapolated from Wagner's original meanings (insofar as any of us really understand them), it doesn't dovetail easily with other issues, notably that of Kundry. An astonishing character, the constantly reincarnated female version of the Wandering Jew mingled with Mary Magdalene and Venus, Kundry is released from her curse by Parsifal: not only the curse of tearlessness, but that of deathlessness. Usually she finds her rest at the opera's conclusion. Here, she may find true love, but the effect is still to diminish her significance.

Since seeing the performance I've been looking at the Royal Opera House's reactions page and found a fascinating post interpreting the production via profoundly Christian symbolism and the eucharistic litury. Scroll down and read; it's the one by Richard Davey. It makes a huge amount of sense and is wholly different from my take. Perhaps this Parsifal will be "read" in a unique and personal way by everyone who experiences it - rather like those psychological tests where you see images in an ink blot that reflect your own mind. Then it becomes fascinating on a whole new level.

So, the performances. Gerald Finley stole the show as Amfortas, in no uncertain terms. Heartbreaking, all-encompassing, impassioned, incandescent, desperately moving. Rene Pape's Gurnemanz is a true classic, but at this performance he seemed short of his best; and Angela Denoke's much-praised Kundry unfortunately went somewhat off the rails in Act II, losing control of intonation and struggling for the high notes. She was absolutely fine in Act III, but we spent part of the interval wondering whether an understudy might have to sing from a wing. Simon O'Neill's Parsifal grew from harsh-toned callow youth in Act I, breaking his own bow on realising his guilt at killing the swan, to steely, determined redeemer with voice to match. Willard White smouldered as Klingsor - the first time one might wish for an evil magician to have a bit more to do. Chorus and orchestra were on blistering form, with Tony Pappano leading an account that was sumptuously coloured, full of tension and concentrated beauty.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Stephen Langridge talks about Parsifal

The Royal Opera House's new production of Parsifal opens in three-quarters of an hour. I'm not going until 11th, but can't will be my 4th Parsifal of this year. I simply couldn't stand the thing when I first heard it. Yet now the piece has got under my skin the way no opera has since Die Zauberflote. So it was intriguing to be presented with the chance to ask its  director, Stephen Langridge, a few big questions in an e-chat...(This is a long version of a short piece for the Indy.)

JD: What does it mean to you personally to be directing Parsifal?

SL: I first saw Parsifal in the Hans Jürgen Syberberg film version as a teenager, and loved it… but in my twenties I really fell out with the piece (loathed it), and only in the last few years have I returned to it. But even when I hated it I was always aware of its enormity and importance. Now I find myself moved by its simple humanity and complex almost desperate scrabble for spiritual meaning in life.

JD: Please tell us something about what you're doing with it in this new production?

SL: There are a couple of clear developments the piece which emerge from a close consideration of the story’s background and when you take the characters seriously as people rather than symbolic representations of an idea. One is the effort to effect a paradigm shift – to move from a world ofschadenfreude, cruel mocking laughter at another’s suffering, to one of mitleid, compassion. The other is from a hierarchical, closed and exclusive spiritual community, to an uncovered Grail, where each person must make their own connection with the numinous. These ideas are on one level, simple, but Wagner is not simplistic, and he forces us to experience very dark twists and turns on the journey. Our attempt is to tell a clear story, but to allow the piece to keep its mystery: to find recognizable humanity in the characters, but also to keep the magic of the myth.

JD: Many opera-lovers (myself included) feel that Parsifal is itself a kind of Holy Grail... What are its biggest challenges, excitements and dangers for you as director? Do you see it as in any way a story for our times?

SL: Parsifal is like the Holy Grail if you are ever tempted to think that there is a perfect way to do it, which will be forever relevant. Its philosophy and even its narrative are slippery, contradictory, intangible. It is a huge piece - not just in terms of length - through which there are probably as many journeys available as there are people to engage with it. As a director I suppose the main thing is not to be overwhelmed by its performance history, but to listen openly as if for the first time, to focus on the human moments that resonate and move us. Is it a story for our own times? Yes – but perhaps this could be a definition of any masterpiece, when a piece’s multifaceted complexity reveals itself anew to each generation.

JD: Wagner has become desperately associated with the Nazis and anti-Semitism. How can we best deal with this today?

SL: Wagner was anti-Semitic, and he wrote and said poisonous things. But I think he composed beyond his bigotry, plunging instinctively into deep myth structure. I don’t think that we need to present his operas to comment on his horrible views. If I felt that was all that was going on in Parsifal, I wouldn’t direct it. It’s right to continue to examine and expose Wagner’s views and behavior, and to wonder at this same man being able to compose such sublime music, and to dedicate his last work to the idea of human compassion. In the stark contradiction sits flawed humanity.

Parsifal, Royal Opera House, from 2 December. Box office: 020 7304 4000

And here is a video preview in which Gerald Finley talks about singing the role of Amfortas.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Proms 2013: Hear 7 Wagner Operas for £5 Each

You'll need sandiwches, water, strong shoes and even stronger legs - those operas are loooong - but where else in the world can you go to the complete Ring cycle conducted by Daniel Barenboim and starring Nina Stemme, plus Tristan und Isolde, Tannhauser and Parsifal, each with major Wagnerian superstars at the helm, and stand just a few metres from the performers, and pay only £5 a time? Yes, the Proms are back and this is one great whopper of a Wagner anniversary season.

There's some Verdi - though no complete operas (apparently this is down to it's-just-how-things-turned-out, rather than any Wagner-is-best conspiracy, before you ask). And a more than fair pop at Britten, including Billy Budd from Glyndebourne. Fans of Granville Bantock, Walton, Rubbra, George Lloyd and Tippett could also be quite happy with this year's line-up.

The glass ceiling is shattering nicely as Marin Alsop takes the helm for the Last Night, becoming the first woman ever to conduct it. Better late than never, and she is a brilliant choice for the task.

Guest artists on the Last Night include Joyce DiDonato and Nigel Kennedy. Nige will be appearing earlier in the season too, playing the good old Four Seasons with his own Orchestra of Life plus the Palestine Strings, which consists of young players from the Edward Said National Conservatories of Music. Lots of piano treats as well - soloists to hear include Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, the terrific duo of Noriko Ogawa and Kathryn Stott, Daniil Trifonov in the rarely-heard Glazunov Piano Concerto No.2 and Imogen Cooper and Paul Lewis playing Schubert's Grand Duo for piano duet in a late-night Prom.

There's one thing, though, that sent me into meltdown. Leafing through the listings, one turns to 6 August and out leap the words KORNGOLD: SYMPHONY IN F SHARP. I've waited 30 years for this. Erich Wolfgang Korngold's one and only full-blown symphony is coming to the Proms at long, long last. It is being performed by the BBC Philharmonic under John Stogårds. And guess what? I'm supposed to be away on holiday on 6 August. If that isn't the Law of Sod, then what is?

Meanwhile we're promised more TV coverage of the Proms than ever before, and plenty of stuff online, and the invaluable iPlayer to help with catching up. But really, there's no substitute for being there. If you've never been, get a taste of it in the launch film above. Book your tickets now.

Full listings here.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Jonas Kaufmann and the Holy Grail

(I didn't quite mean to write all this when I sat down this morning. It was going to be a straight review of a cinecast. But no. Please get a cuppa, then fasten your seatbelts.)

Every now and then, a writer regrets something. Today: two things. First of all, I think I once said something sniffy about opera cinecasts. I take it all back.

Just imagine a world where we can all go to the cinema and see a simultaneous relay of something happening 3000 miles away that is perhaps the finest performance possible today of one of the greatest operas ever written. To experience it would otherwise cost us a transatlantic air fare, a New York hotel and several hundred $$$s in tickets booked about a year in advance. Yet there it is, splayed across a big screen a mile up the road, in high definition picture and rather good sound, and we are sharing it not only with our full-house cinema and the theatre where it's happening, but also with packed cinemas all over the country, all over the continent, all over the globe. And the radio audience as well. Folks, we are in that world. We should be so lucky.

As I said before, it's not the same as a live performance. But my goodness, we still get the experience, and it is full on, and it is everywhere. It's an extraordinary feat of technological expertise and I can only take off my leopard-print hat to those who developed it. Yesterday's Parsifal offered Jonas Kaufmann wrapped, this time, in a solar storm: a flicker of sound loss here and there, for a fraction of a second, was apparently due to flare-ups on the sun. The system must, on the whole, be pretty robust.

The second thing I regret is my early years as a Wagnerphobe. As a kid in north London I swallowed all the usual rubbish and never dared touch it. That's another topic... but the essential point is that my mind remained closed to this music for a long time. And I was missing out. And if you are in the state I was in, then the chances are that you, too, are missing out on what could potentially be a life-changing experience. Better late than never.

The Met's Parsifal is directed by Francois Girard - whom you may know for his films such as The Red Violin and 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould. Interviewed by the HD screening's presenter for the occasion, the bass-baritone Eric Owens (a brilliant Alberich), Girard commented that the way to tackle Parsifal is to go back to the music. To paraphrase: everything you need is already in there. 

Like many of the most satisfying Wagner directors, he has focused on strong imagery that is sophisticated yet never cluttered: huge scale, powerful effects of light and colour. The concept, if concept it is, is "post apocalyptic" - whether induced by war, meteor or global warming is immaterial, but occasionally there's the sense that we are in another galaxy, as vast planets rise in the background. Act I's processional music finds the knights assembling to observe an other-worldly light show - an aurora borealis of sorts.

One danger of Parsifal is that, given the music's timeless spans of quietness and anguish, the action can become static, yet Girard never allows this to happen. The knights in Act I - white shirt, black trousers - form a circle that seems to breathe with the music, opening and closing like a flower as they bend together; their movements amplify the emotions and the narrative in a stylised yet subtle way. Klingsor's realm is framed by vast walls that spill light and blood from their edges, while the floor is filled with blood-like liquid. Here the flower maidens are amplified by dancers: again, blocks of motion, spears catching the light, strong, simple, focused, both striking and sinister in effect.

But above all, Girard has got to the heart of the work by drawing out its compassion. That is the opera's theme: Parsifal is "the fool made wise by compassion". So we need to see on stage exactly what this compassion is. It is everywhere it needs to be, but especially in the characters' tenderness towards one another in the context of a devastated world. The swan episode is heartbreaking (OK, the swan looks a little woolly, but Rene Pape as Gurnemanz manages to convince us it is real), for you can well imagine that in a world where water is reduced to one blood-stained trickle of stream, a swan is a precious rarity indeed. The geometry of the swan's wound and Amfortas's is clear as daylight - red stain on white - but the symbolism is never hammered at us.

Kundry's tenderness for Amfortas; Gurnemanz's tenderness for Kundry, who ultimately dies cradled in his arms; the rebuttal of those who reject such empathy; and Parsifal's final reappearance, harrowed and aged over we don't know how long, presenting himself for Gurnemanz's annointing not with arrogance but remarkable humility as he declares that he will be king. This overwhelming sense of connection and compassion seems in no way contrived: it is there, in the music and the text, and all Girard has done is to take it on its own terms and bring out the best in it. An opera director gets a standing, yelling ovation? Unusual - but this one does. He deserves every second of it.

Perhaps there have been times in the last 130-odd years when the piece has been better sung, but it is difficult to imagine how. Kaufmann as Parsifal offers tenderness aplenty and that special velvety, covered tone of his when it's needed. But inside that chest (which his female fans will be happy to know is, for much of the time, bared) there is a type of Heldentenor waiting to be unleashed, and in Act II it is given its head. "Amfortas!" He opens up and the voltage can flatten us - not with volume necessarily, but with focus of tone, emotional intensity and sheer musicianship. Kaufmann may be the thinking woman's pin-up, but if he were five foot high and six foot wide yet sang with the same sound, brain and heart, I really think we would still flock to him in the same numbers. [UPDATE: a few males have tweeted a gentle protest that I have only mentioned JK's female fans in this context. Fair enough, chaps - please join us!]

And the rest of the cast matched him. There is a touch of genius in Rene Pape's Gurnemanz: his rich, flowing tone feels effortless, his attention to nuancing of the words made Act I (nearly 2 hours, much of which he carries) fly by, and the empathy of his character shines without being forced. Peter Mattei as the suffering Amfortas reached the same level of wondrous tone and dramatic impact; and in Act III he plunges into Titurel's grave in a gesture that seems to sum up the human tragedy of the whole work. Katarina Dalayman simply is Kundry - a timeless, earth-mother figure, all-giving, loving, exhausted emotionally but never vocally. Around her neck, she wears a variety of symbols: a cross rubs together with a new-age crystal. More of that in a moment.

Biggest credit, perhaps, of all: Daniele Gatti in the pit. It's been much remarked on, in astonishment, that he conducts this five-hour masterpiece from memory, but even more remarkable is what he does with it. In short, he keeps the sound of the orchestra quiet enough for the singers not to have to yell. It's a big orchestra. It takes a lot of doing. But the sounds shift across these vast tracts of music with the transparency and wonder of those aurora borealis images; the atmosphere is hushed, rapt, meditative and filled with a surreal glow; and the textures are clear and flowing enough to allow us to hear the counterpoint and detail that point the way forward to half the masterpieces of the next 50 years.

Act I shows us where Pelleas et Melisande originated. Act II's flower maidens are a signpost to Richard Strauss. Act III is chock-full of late Faure. The Prelude lights the way towards Mahler 9. Origins of late Bruckner and Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius? Look no further. You realise that this is what those composers were all trying to do, and you can't blame them for trying, and you can't help but marvel at the way the fact that they didn't manage to do it nevertheless let them create new paths of their own, with great works the result.

On their knees, palms open to the light, head back, the chorus receives the moment in what can only be described as a state of grace. How Wagner achieves this must be one of music's eternal mysteries. Anyone who has been through a spiritual awakening of any kind, in any religion, or cult, or meditation process, will recognise it. Yet Wagner himself doesn't appear to have been an especially spiritual or religious person beyond his intellectual interest - and in terms of spiritual system, Parsifal is in a world of its own. The focus is obviously Christian, yet Jesus Christ is never mentioned by name. And the blend of eastern myticism and the references to reincarnation (Kundry was once Herodias?) would probably be rejected with a good deal of scepticism by most traditional Christians - wouldn't it?

As for the Grail: it is found. It exists. And it sits in its box. They're not on a quest for it any longer - the thing has turned up, but Amfortas, driven mad by pain, won't allow it out to heal his community. What is Wagner's Holy Grail?

Could it be music? Art itself? 

The channelling through a golden cup/opera/book/painting/other marvel of a holy spirit that can heal us when we let it out and allow its light to shine? 

And perhaps this is why many of us who are neither religious, nor believers, nor fanatics, nor indeed anything but ordinary 21st-century people in a local cinema on a Saturday evening, wept over Parsifal yesterday.

Maybe that is its message for us in 2013. The Grail is found: we know the power of music to change lives and heal souls. It has been proven, time and again. But we still won't let it out of its box - not necessarily out of spite or ignorance or foolishness, but out of pain. Let in the compassion, let in the empathy, and take it up, and let it do its work.

I refer you to the Music Inspirations section of my sidebar for further reading.

(NB: There are various 'encore' screenings, but dates and times vary from cinema to cinema. Our nearest, Richmond Curzon, is on 17 March at 2pm, according to a notice in the foyer yesterday - nothing about it on the website, though.)